Published: October 29, 2007
Revered, along with Picasso, as a great pioneer of Modern art, Henri Matisse utilized radical innovations in his influential paintings and sculptures. His mastery of painted works †and cutouts †is well known. A new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) confirms his extraordinary gifts as creator of three-dimensional objects.
In works of all kinds, Matisse (1869‱954) pushed the medium beyond the ordinary, celebrating the joie de vivre , and in the process helped put avant-garde art on the map. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, whose subjects often reflected the anxiety, alienation and random violence of modern life, Matisse’s essential subject was the joy of life, reflected in his earliest Fauve period paintings and sculptures, created around the turn of the century, to the last cutouts produced just before his death.
“Matisse: Painter as Sculptor,” the first Matisse sculpture exhibition in more than two decades, was organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center (where it opened in January), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the BMA, where it is on view through February 3.
This fascinating exhibition features more than 160 sculptures, paintings, drawings and archival photographs that underscore the artist’s inventiveness, the dialogue between his two- and three-dimensional works and his contributions to the evolution of Modern art.
Drawing on its own rich holdings, the BMA exhibition includes complementary works by such contemporary artists as Constantin Brancusi, Paul Cezanne, Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso and Auguste Rodin that place Matisse’s sculpture in context. As BMA director Doreen Bolger declared, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Matisse’s genius represented in bronze, on canvas and on paper with works from around the world.”
Born in northern France, Matisse studied law at the University of Paris, but he said he “had no desire to visit any of the great museums, or even the annual salons of painting.” At the age of 20, however, bored by clerking in a law firm and while recuperating from an attack of appendicitis, he began fiddling around with painting and found his calling.
After four years of academic training in Paris with Adolphe William Bouguereau at the Academie Julian and with Gustave Moreau at the École des Beaux-Arts, he began painting with a dark, Old Masters palette. Soon he converted to brighter, even violent hues and distorted compositions that made him a leader among the more adventurous young painters in the city. He and his fellow Fauvists (“wild beasts”), such as Derain, Roualt and Vlaminck, shocked the public with their shrill colors and unconventional shapes.
He married in 1898 and eventually had two boys, but struggled for a decade before earning a comfortable income. His first significant sale †the brightly painted “Woman With the Hat,” 1905 †was to the family of American expatriate/salon hostess Gertrude Stein. As critic Clement Greenberg once wrote of Matisse, “Like Picasso, he had to wait until the boom in Modern art in the 1920s to become a rich man.”
Before 1945, much of his work was bought by Germans, Russians and Americans. Hans Hofmann, the German-born painter and teacher, promoted Matisse’s art in the United States, and Dr Albert Barnes was a substantial collector and advocate. In 1933, Matisse visited the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Penn., to supervise installation of his celebrated mural, “The Dance.” The most important collectors of Matisse sculptures were Claribel and Etta Cone; the Cone collection at the BMA has been a rich source for Matisse aficionados and scholars for years.
Matisse created many more paintings than sculptures, once saying that for him sculpture was “a break from painting.” As Steven Nash, director of the Nasher Center, notes in the catalog, “His total output in sculpture was just over 80 works, and 75 percent of it dates from the first half of his career.” While he denigrated his sculptural skills, Matisse had a special genius in the medium. It shines through in this comprehensive, rewarding exhibition.
Indeed, his work in this medium ranks him among the greatest sculptors of the Twentieth Century. There is ample evidence of play back and forth between his work in the two mediums. “I took up sculpture because what interested me in painting was a clarification of my ideas,” he declared. “It was done for the purpose of organization, to put order into my feelings and to find a style to suit me. When I found it in sculpture, it helped me in my painting.”
Since he tackled the same subjects †primarily, the female nude †in both mediums, inevitably one fed the other. “While the best of Matisse’s sculptures set standards for Modernist figuration, the dialogue between painting and sculpture within his work is as important, if not more important, than the excellence of any individual piece,” art historian Karen Wilkin has observed. Among other things, Matisse seems to have been intrigued by the materiality of sculpture, the volume, depth and weight that he could not find in painting.
As Wilkin says, Matisse’s “work abounds in contradictions, and his sculpture, no less than his painting or drawing, embodies the tensions that define his art: between sensuality and discipline; between innovation and attachment to the past; between authority and anxiety.”
“Matisse: Painter as Sculptor” is organized thematically around a nucleus of more than 60 of the artist’s sculptural masterworks, which are juxtaposed with closely related works in paintings, on paper and photographs of him in his studio. These integrated groupings explore how Matisse’s drawings may have developed out of sculptures and how sculptures may have influenced his paintings, while documenting the evolution of his sculptural concepts and complex creative process.
Matisse was already an accomplished painter in 1899 when he began attending evening clay modeling and sculpture classes at a Parisian communal school, where he produced an innovative version of a graphic Antoine-Louis Barye sculpture of animals in mortal combat. Early works are displayed in an atelierlike setting with large reproductions of photographs of Matisse at work.
One of his first successes, “Madeline I,” 1901, utilized a smooth surface to emphasize the sinuous femininity of the subject. In the study drawing for this work, Matisse experimented with raising and crossing the woman’s arms, before shortening them in the sculpture.
A number of recognizable sculptural motifs, especially lounging and standing figures, first appeared in an idyllic setting in his 1905‱906 Fauve canvas, “Le Bonheur de vivre,” and are hinted at in the oil sketch that preceded it, on view in the exhibition. As BMA curator Oliver Shell writes in the catalog, this “Arcadian landscape&⁛contains] not only the early expression of figural poses he would explore in major sculptures& but also an expression of Matisse’s lifelong fascination with luxuriant gestures of self-display and two-sided viewing relationships.”
In 1907, Matisse reworked the classical nymph theme in “Reclining Nude (Aurora),” depicting a voluptuous, reclining female nude, and in a painting, “Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra.”
The exaggerated distortion and elongated bodies in both works suggest dynamic relationships among his sculptures and paintings †and challenged aesthetic perceptions of contemporary viewers.
Like many of his contemporaries, Matisse was fascinated by the discovery of African art around the turn of the Twentieth Century, incorporating it into his work. Following a trip to North Africa in 1906, for example, he adapted figural distortions of African sculpture in “Standing Nude,” based on an exaggerated view of his 12-year-old daughter, Marguerite. A plaster cast of this work, along with props in his studio, were included in “Still Life with Plaster Figure (Nature morte: a la statuette),” a 1906 painting.
That same year he employed a similar strategy in incorporating two sculptural works in a painting, “Still Life with Geranium,” in which “the sculptures serve to animate the scene while retaining both the status of sculpted objects and of pure medium: crudely applied paint, drawn lines and color,” writes Shell.
In “Two Negresses,” 1907‱908, he translated a photograph of two young African women facing each other, each with an arm around the other’s neck, into a chunky, compelling sculpture. “When I wanted to get rid of all influences that prevented me from seeing nature from my own personal view,” Matisse explained, “I copied photographs.” “Two Negresses” exemplifies Dallas Museum curator Dorothy Kosinski’s comment that “Matisse’s figures are never in flux; on the contrary, they are grounded, constructed with the thinking of an architect.”
As he did in his paintings and drawings, Matisse repeatedly explored variations and alternatives to certain motifs and poses in his sculptures. The four bronze versions of “The Back,” created between 1909 and 1930, for instance, while not initially conceived as a coherent series, represent a focus on the theme of a nude female leaning against a wall, viewed from behind. The compositions evolve from the naturalistic rendering in “The Back I,” 1909, through increasingly simplified and clarified versions to the starkly pared-down, columnar figure in “The Back IV,” 1930.
Throughout his career, Matisse explored joyful, exuberant dance as a theme, employing an S-shaped, curved line †called an arabesque †to convey the dynamic movement of dancers. In “The Serpentine,” 1909, a nude stands frontally with legs crossed as she leans on a phallic balustrade. It connects with Matisse’s “Dance” paintings of this period, as well as his abstract gouache, “Acrobatic Dancer,” of 1949.
For seven years, starting in 1922, Matisse worked on “Large Seated Nude,” (1922‱929), one of his biggest and most ambitious freestanding sculptures. Predicated on poses by a young dancer, it offers a provocative, sensuous view of a grand female body.
It was preceded by a 1906 sketch, “Large Nude,” and followed by the familiar 1935 painting, “Large Reclining Nude/The Pink Nude,” which repeats the S-shaped arrangement, albeit of only one arm, of the earlier, three-dimensional piece.
The serpentine form in “Blue Nude I,” a 1952 cutout, offers a more abstract version of the pose. “The limbs of the nude, intertwined in a self-contained crouching pose, are beginning to unfold,” notes BMA curator Jay McKean Fisher.
Matisse first used paper cutouts to prepare large compositions, such as “The Dance,” 1930‱933. He soon treated them as independent works and continued to pursue the genre for the rest of his career.
Confined to a wheelchair after being diagnosed with cancer in 1941, and confined to his bed in his last years, Matisse occupied himself increasingly with decoupage. He eventually used shapes he scissored from heavy paper painted with gouache by studio assistants and assembled them in varied compositions on canvas surfaces. “Paper cutouts allow me to draw in color,” he observed. The show concludes with examples of his cutouts, demonstrating how he turned sculptural concepts into brilliantly hued works on paper.
Although Matisse was more prolific and famous for his paintings, his sculptural work was outstanding and an influential element in the flourishing of the avant-garde. Both mediums made him internationally popular in this lifetime, acclaimed by art critics, collectors, younger artists and the general public.
Matisse’s sculptural achievements, observes Nash in the catalog, are grounded in “its revision and extension with daring modeling and anatomical reinvention, deeply autobiographical metaphorical meanings and a new concept of the object as object rather than as image&” Suggesting that Matisse “contribute[d] significantly to the development of modern sculpture,” Nash concludes that “We must understand the achievement of this other Matisse if we are to appreciate more fully the complexity of his artistic personality.”
The 296-page illustrated exhibition catalog, co-published by the Baltimore Museum, Dallas Museum, Nasher Sculpture Center and Yale University Press, is priced at $60. It contains enlightening chapters by Kosinski, Fisher and Nash, plus essays by Baltimore conservator Ann Boulton and Shell.
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